Psst. Want a Western University Degree Without Studying?

The time-honored practice of awarding university degrees for money is alive and well in Cambodia. After being turfed out of Malaysia for being neither Irish nor a university, the Internet-based Irish International University of Europa is showering Cambodian political leaders with degrees and establishing an “Asian campus” in Phnom Penh.

The advent of the Internet and a growing thirst for university degrees in Asia have coalesced into a potent combination for diploma mills, organizations that award degrees with little or no academic study. Unrecognized by official accrediting bodies, they have nonetheless given the sheepskin to some of Asia’s top bureaucrats and politicians, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, and used the publicity surrounding those awards to deluge prospective students.

The Irish Embassy in Malaysia said in an emailed statement that the Irish government has informed IIU that by using the term university in its business name it is violating Irish law. “Any awards it makes...have no academic standing whatsoever in our country,” the statement said. In Cambodia, however, Irish International University has found a relatively prestigious partner. In April 2005, the organization teamed up with Cambodia’s largest private higher-education institution, Build Bright University, which is accredited by Cambodia’s Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports. That officially made BBU Irish International’s “Asian Campus.” Its East Africa campus is located in Kenya.

Next year BBU expects to begin awarding up to 100 Irish International doctorate degrees. Posters of Irish International graduations adorn BBU’s main hall and a degree template with the phrase “your name here” sits in its administration office.

The dean of the faculty of business at BBU, Samrith Chanheng, holds an MBA from Irish International University as well. He said that he obtained the MBA by transferring online credit from the US-based Americus University and paying $500 to Irish International. According to the US state of Maine, Americus University degrees are not accredited in the US.

In large color advertisements running in November in major Khmer-language newspapers, Cambodian tycoon and Senator Mong Reththy’s company announced that its owner had received a PhD in Business Strategy from Irish International University.

The ads show Mong Reththy, a construction and palm oil magnate, dressed in red academic gown and cap, standing before a stately building in Cambridge, England with his wife at his side. Asked about his new degree, Mong Reththy acknowledged that he had not taken any courses or completed any assignments at Irish International University.

“They gave it to me through looking at the previous working leadership,” he said. “I didn’t spend anything, only for a flight on the plane,” he said. “I don’t know if it is faked…they organized such a big ceremony and is it even faked? I also don’t know.”

Mong Reththy is not the first prominent Cambodian to receive an award from Irish International. Hun Sen got his honorary doctorate in April 2004. The Phnom Penh degree ceremony is prominently featured on the university’s website.

After an investigation, it appears BBU students paying $4,500 for an Irish International University PhD may not be getting the academic qualification they or employers are seeking. Irish International’s “degrees” are not recognized in Ireland, where it says it is based. Nor are its degrees recognized in the UK, where the group also has offices.

Last year, the Irish Ambassador to Malaysia asked the Malaysian government to close Irish International University, according to media reports. Emails to the Irish Embassy in Malaysia were returned by Lesley Hoh, who directs the educational consulting agency affiliated with the Embassy. Hoh said she has brought the information that Irish International is operating in Cambodia to the Embassy’s attention and that the Embassy “has been concerned for some time about the activities of the so-called Irish International University (“IIU”) and other such enterprises.”

“IIU is not recognized as a university in Ireland and its awards have no academic standing there,” she wrote. “IIU has a business address only in Ireland.”

No longer in Malaysia, Irish International has told Build Bright that it is accredited to deliver university degrees in the UK. However, upon closer inspection and despite a contorted explanation of how it is permitted to offer UK degrees, it turns out the UK government does not recognize Irish International degrees either.

The UK Department for Education and Skills officially recognizes institutions that can award degrees. Its Web site maintains two lists, one of recognized degree-awarding bodies and one of other institutions that can offer courses that lead to a degree by one of the degree-awarding bodies. Irish International University is not on either list.

“Only those organizations on the above lists are permitted to award UK degrees or offer provisions that leads to a UK degree. If an organization is not contained on one of these lists then it is NOT offering a recognized UK degree,” the department Web site states. “It is an offence in the UK for any organization to offer a degree qualification which could be taken to be that of a recognized UK institution…Such organizations will be reported to the appropriate Local Trading Standards Department for investigation which could lead to prosecution.”

Irish International claims that its masters and doctorates are approved by something called the Business Management Association, which is also not on the UK government list. While it is not accredited by the official British Accreditation Council, it claims to be accredited by the little-known Christhomas Consortium.

The Web site for Christhomas no longer functions, but in paid advertisements placed in a book put out by a private publisher entitled “British Qualifications,” Christhomas shares the same office address as Irish International University: 5 Westminster Bridge Road, London, raising questions about whether the university and its supposed independent accreditation body are in fact the same group of people.

BBU Rector In Viracheat on Monday said that BBU believes the claims for accreditation offered by Irish International. But in the face of clear lack of recognition by the British and Irish governments, the accreditation claims, however elaborate, matter little.

These claims included advertisement in the unofficial “British Qualifications” book and a “Quality Mark” given by a newly formed private company called the Quality Assurance Commission UK. This body, founded in 2004, has so far accredited 18 institutions, none of which are recognized by the UK government.

“We knew from the beginning that this is distance learning and that is something new, not recognized by most governments,” BBU Vice Rector of Academics Dy Davuth said Monday. Producing a stack of actual PhD thesis proposals to be forwarded to Irish International, the BBU official said that local Irish International staff do not actually read the proposals.

“We have a lack or human resources, so we bring in these experts from Irish International to help us,” he said. The resulting PhDs offered will be recognized by the Cambodian Ministry of Education, he said, as BBU degrees.

He said that awarding life experience degrees like that received by Mong Reththy is academically justified. He said BBU receives no funding or budget from Irish International, and that the university management approached BBU in 2004 about building a relationship. BBU charges between $200 and $300 per year for its PhD program but ups the fee to $4,500 total for a “twin” PhD from BBU and Irish International, he said.

“This is academic diversity,” In Viracheat said. “There is not just one accreditation body.” Pointing to the fact that some Irish International classes are held on the physical campus of Cambridge University, he said justifies its degree claims.

“How can it open at Cambridge then? Cambridge is the number two university in the UK,” he said.

In an e-mail, Marie-Ann Kyne-Lilley, an official at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, where IIU says one of its subsidiaries offers classes, said that Cambridge does not accredit any degrees or “qualifications of any kind” awarded by Irish International University.

In Virahceat also said that Irish International is an open university. The UK’s renowned Open University, on the UK government list, does accept credits from some local institutions, but Irish International is not on that list either. He said that as many as 100 people are eligible for PhDs next year, but could not saw how many are in the Irish International program.

Emailed questions to Irish International Executive President H Sandhu about accusations he is operating a degree mill were returned by an assistant named Olivia, who referred all questions to the university’s Web site.

That Web site claims Irish International can award degrees based on a proposed European Union European Qualifications Framework that has not yet been adopted by the EU. That framework is intended to translate national qualifications from one country to another, not supplant the UK or Irish recognition systems, however.

Opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay said the way Irish International has flourished here is a sign of deep problems in academic accreditation here.

“Higher Education is a disaster in this country,” he said. “The government needs to establish a body to carefully monitor the curriculum and training that these private university. What will happen to Cambodia with all these certificates issued to people with no skills or training? In Cambodia senior officials want to be called Iodom [Excellency] or Okhna [Knight] or General and now they want to add Doctor to the title. It is a disturbing trend.”

In January advertisements announced that Cambodian Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh had received a doctorate from America’s Ashwood University, which also not accredited to offer degrees in the US, according to several US state governments.

Chan Roth, the director of the Education Ministry’s Department of Scientific Research in charge of Master and PhD programs said that Dy Davuth had assured him of Irish International University’s ability to grant degrees. Nonetheless, he said he would investigate the matter. He said that he had not yet seen the UK or Irish Web site lists that exclude the institution.

“I will conduct the investigation,” he said. “We try to reform little by little…we recognize that we are still weak.” Foreigners, he said, are often taking advantage of their residence in Cambodia to trick students.